At what point in a writer’s career does their writing become able to be characterized? I mean specifically the point where you get to add “ian” or “esque” at the end of someone’s name, or “so” at the beginning of it. As in, “it’s the most Updike-esque of his works” or “those stories are soooo O’Connor.”
Kate Christensen is about to release her fifth novel, Trouble, after last year’s triumphant, PEN Faulkner-winning, The Great Man, and this new book is feeling pretty Christensen-ish to me. The writing is lush, witty, and extremely clever without being the slightest bit pretentious, while vividly etched characters consume life willfully and voraciously, as two female friends in their 40s escape their lives and take on Mexico City. Trouble is simultaneously bittersweet and exhilarating, and will fit nicely in one’s beach bag, this summer. Try not to get it wet, though, because you’ll probably want to share it with a friend.
Kate kindly answered three questions via email over the course of a stunning summer weekend in Brooklyn, NY.
Rumpus: I think my favorite thing about this book is that the narrator is unapologetic about wanting to fulfill her desires. I know that sometimes women – more than men, for sure – both in real life and the fictional world definitely feel a little guilty about making themselves feel good, whether it’s with sex or food or following their dreams. It’s so refreshing to see a character having a good time. Did you set out to write something inspirational? I recognize that some people might not find a narrator who leaves her husband to pursue, amongst other things, her sexual desires, as a role model, and the narrator is indeed flawed, but still, the whole time I was thinking: Hallelujah.
Christensen: I set out to write about two very different types of women — Josie is tough and selfish, although she generally tries to do the right thing; she’s empathetic but naive. She has limited awareness of herself and other people, even though she’ a therapist; and this myopia protects her in some deep way. Raquel is also tough in her own way, but she’s far more vulnerable and self-aware than her friend, and this is what destroys her in the end. I wanted the difference in their fates to feel poignant and complex, not attributable to only one thing — as Josie comes back to life, she becomes increasingly self-involved. As Raquel falls apart and spirals down, she becomes increasingly clear-eyed.
If I’m saying anything, to answer your question more directly, maybe it’s that in order to allow yourself to get exactly what you want, you have to be a little clueless, a little naive — willfully so, maybe. I’m not judging either character, it’s not my place to judge my characters because they’re all parts of myself, but I do think objectively that Josie can be maddeningly obtuse, which enables her to see what she wants and needs to see. Raquel has no such luxury of selective understanding: she sees her own situation with blistering, unmediated clarity. Josie suppressed her own desires and needs for years: she couldn’t face the fact that she was stifled and frustrated because she lacked that degree of self-knowledge. Her sudden realization that her marriage is over is uncharacteristic, which is why it startles her.
The rest of the novel unfolds from this one unexpected moment of insight, which gives her the impetus to go off in search of pleasure, sex, adventure, decadence, independence. Raquel is paying the price for her own past; she’s lost her internal sense of entitlement to joy or pleasure. She’s washed-up, heartbroken, and shamed, and she knows exactly what she did to get herself into this state. It’s the irony at the heart of the novel for me: self-knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness.
Rumpus: I also enjoyed your investigation into female friendships, which can sometimes shift at a moment’s notice, even if you’ve known a person for years. I often talk about taking “friend breaks” with people, which is some rough stuff, but usually works out in the end. I just think they’re really tricky things, female friendships. Again, you’ve expressed different layers and possibilities than aren’t usually acknowledged in literature. Can you talk a bit about what drove your decisions with this topic, and, if possible, a little bit about what you have learned about female friendships in your life.
Christensen: Female friendship can and often does go as deep as marriage or family, but it lacks the codified structures of those more “official” relationships. Therefore it can be either a glorious, carefree bond or a nebulous and swampy world of painful misunderstanding and thwarted expectations — there are no rules about what we owe our friends, and often it feels as if each friendship is sort of made up as it goes along, improvised from scratch.
I’ve taken “friendship breaks,” I’ve flat-out dumped friends and been dumped myself, I’ve struggled through painful situations with friends, and I’ve learned, over the years, that friendship must be seen by both people as entirely voluntary, entirely based on mutual choice — although friends often feel guilty or resentful about letting each other down and say or do things they’d rather not say or do in order to avoid hurt feelings, there really are no obligations, no real responsibilities, that attend friendship.
So in a way it’s the purest of bonds — both people are there because, ultimately, they choose to be together, with every lunch, every walk together, every conversation, it’s a reinforcement of that choice. Over the years, a friendship becomes ingrained, but a friend isn’t someone I feel I can ever take for granted.
I wanted to write about this somehow — raise some questions about female friends who’ve known each other through the decades and have stayed close despite divergences in their lives. I find these friendships deeply moving and inspiring — at the end, after her poignant rapprochement with Indrani, Josie thinks about Raquel and wonders whether she failed her; she realizes, both from what happened with Indrani and what happened with Raquel, that the way to be a true friend is not to judge or proscribe, but to empathize and be as fully present as possible – this is what true friendship is made of, no mater what the outcome.
Rumpus: You told me that you were reading Blake and Cervantes right now in preparation for writing your next book. What books did you read in preparation for writing this book? Is this something you’ve done consistently throughout your career as part of your process? And how deliberate are these choices? I have, on occasion, gone to bookstores where I know the employees well and highly value their opinion, and given them a very general idea of what my book is about and then asked them to recommend a slew of books of to me. But it’s always in the very nascent stages of my book, just a hint of an idea, and I think partially I just like hanging out with people who work in bookstores. I suspect you are more purposeful than that.
Christensen: Really? No, I don’t think I am; your approach sounds quite purposeful and open-minded and smart. I do research for books in a haphazard, intuitive, quasi-grumbling way. I KNOW Blake and Cervantes are crucial for this next book, and I don’t know enough about them, so I will spend my weeklong summer island getaway as a working vacation, immersed in Don Quixote and as much of Blake as I can gulp down. I know I’ll be a pig in shit, though. In fact, I can’t wait.
For Trouble, I didn’t really do any ancillary reading — it was a visceral experience to write that book. I did a lot of research on Mexico City itself, a place I’ve been to many times; I have friends who live there or have lived there, and I made them read the manuscript and picked their brains. I derived inspiration entirely from my own imagination and experience this time around.
I wrote the novel in three months and didn’t stop for breath the entire time. It felt deeply necessary in a personal, not a public, way, so with this book the critical reception doesn’t matter to me as much as it did with, say The Epicure’s Lament, which was a labor of tremendous literary love — I was inspired by Montaigne and MFK Fisher most of all, but also many other novelists. It’s mysterious, where novels come from.